The early 1970s represented an enormous period of change for the film industry. As we’ve seen, studios no longer had the resources or clout to make pictures adhere to any pre-determined standards. In fact, after a series of expensive flops, most of them were staring bankruptcy right in the face. And it seemed impossible to find an audience. For the first time, individual directors were the ones in the driver’s seat. In this new environment, many felt free to experiment and pursue their own personal visions. Hollywood began to resemble the wild west as directors like Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Sam Peckinpah, Roman Polanski, Mel Brooks, Martin Scorsese, Franklin Schaffner, Wes Craven, John Boorman, Alan Pakula, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich began to turn out films the likes of which had never been seen before.
In fact, many critics consider the 1970s to be the greatest decade in film history bar none. Complex stories and characterizations, realistic plots, subtle but ingenious experiments in cinematography, great musical scores, and entertaining stories…this was the decade during which film took a major step up both as mass entertainment and as a sophisticated art form. Out of the American Film Institute’s top 100 films of all time, 20 were made in the 1970s…more than any other decade. (As a change of pace, also consider that for Bravo’s Top 10 Scariest Movie Moments of all time, five of the films were made during the 70s..including the top three spots) .
The early 1970s also witnessed another benchmark year in cinema. While 1939 is widely considered the “single greatest year in film history”, 1974 is generally given credit as another possible contender. The sheer number of classic films released in that single year is astounding and crosses all genres: Chinatown, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, , The Towering Inferno, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Longest Yard, The Parallax View, The Taking of Pelham 123, That’s Entertainment, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Three Musketeers, The Sugarland Express and Death Wish just to name a few.
And we haven’t even yet mentioned what is probably the the most honored film released during the first half of the decade. A film which AFI in 2007 ranked as the second greatest American film ever made (after “Citizen Kane”). Other groups have gone even further. Metacritics, Entertainment Weekly, and Empire Magazine have given it the number one spot. When asked his opinion, no one less than Stanley Kubrick once stated that it was quite possibly the greatest film ever made. If you haven’t guessed it already, here’s one more hint: It also holds second place in the American Film Institutes list of most memorable quotes in film history: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”.
Of course we’re talking about The Godfather. But what makes the movie’s production history so interesting to contemplate is that at the time, no one had any idea that “The Godfather” would ever end up being finished. Much less become an integral part of our popular culture. In fact, it ran into so many problems that more than once even the director was convinced he had an unmitigated disaster on his hands.
“The Godfather” was based on a best selling novel by Mario Puzo. When Paramount bought the property, Robert Evans, the head of production, started searching for a suitable director. He offered the job to Francis Ford Coppola. Why? Because Coppola was Italian, and the producer thought he would be in the best position to bring life to the material. In Evan’s own words, he wanted to “smell the spaghetti.” Just one example to illustrate that sometimes even the most most successful people in Hollywood aren’t necessarily deep thinkers.
A graduate of film school at UCLA, Coppola was a minor director. He had already made several modest but well-received movies such as “Dementia 13,” “The Rain People,” and “Finian’s Rainbow.” But he was probably best known at the time as the successful screenwriter behind the movie Patton. Coppola knew of Evan’s reputation as a micro-manager, and knew that if he took the job he would be under the microscope. He also didn’t want to be part of any production which glorified the Mafia. So, at first, he didn’t want to do it. But with a little encouragement from his friend George Lucas, who was also a struggling filmmaker at the time, Coppola signed on for the project.
Coppola wasn’t like most other directors. Disorganized, flamboyant, and an extreme extrovert, he was not a big fan of organized film production and rigid schedules. Instead, Coppola put an extraordinary amount of emphasis into his casting decisions. And he took his own sweet time in making them. After months of tests and try-outs, he narrowed down his list of actors. For most of his choices, he only received minor complaints from Paramount. But when he announced that he wanted to choose Marlon Brando for the lead role, the studio heads became apoplectic.
At the time, Brando was persona non grata in Hollywood. A brilliant method actor, he had always been a little quirky. And during the 1960s he became well known in tinseltown for his penchant for deliberately making movies go past schedule and over budget. No matter what the incentives or penalties, Brando had an annoying habit of disappearing while on the set. Sometimes magically reappearing on other continents without a care in the world. By his own later admission, Brando despised Hollywood protocol, and in particular the “suits” which ran the studios. He would purposefully swear to agreements and contracts, only to deliberately break them in a series of successful attempts to stick it to the establishment. A Hollywood veteran, he knew exactly when and how to throw a monkey wrench into the works.
Coppola didn’t know about this poisoned history. So he was slightly taken aback when the studio heads at Paramount began to scream at him that “there was no way Brando will ever be in this picture!!” But ignorance was bliss, and Coppola stuck to his guns. He knew from test rehearsals that Brando was perfect for the role, and that with him on board, he might just have the ticket for a winning film. For his part, Brando had fallen on hard times, and was eager to work again. Eventually a deal was reached. After several yelling matches, Brando took the part for peanuts, and had to sign a bond making him personally financially responsible for any delays in the production that which were of his doing.
Having won that battle, Coppola next started working with his cast to flesh out their characters. Here, once again, Coppola proved that he wasn’t a conventional director. Despite being a successful screenwriter, he believed scripts were organic entities, and that they should grow and change as the actors “found themselves” in their roles. Days would go by without any footage being shot. And even after scenes were filmed, it was perfectly normal for Coppola to completely reshoot them the following day, after he rewrote the script overnight. As Gordon Willis, the cinematographer on the Godfather, ruefully observed to a reporter: “With Francis, scripts are like newspapers. You get a new one every day.”
This unorthodox working style quickly began to take its toll on the production crew. They found it impossible to stick to any set schedule. Days would be wasted lighting a specific scene, only to not have it needed. Or even worse, very complicated set ups were required with little or no advance planning. Remember the opening wedding scene in the film? Most of it was shot at 3 in the morning. Outside. In the dark. It wasn’t planned that way, but it was another symptom of the chaotic production. Yet on screen it looks like a hot summer afternoon. Imagine the amount of light required to pull off the illusion. If nothing else, it serves as a showcase for the huge strides made in film lighting and cinematography up to that time frame.
Word began to leak back to Paramount that “The Godfather” was in serious trouble. Most of the assistant directors claimed that Coppola was out of control. And that the production was headed toward an abyss. Coppola got word that the studio intended to fire him by the end of the week. In response, he hunkered down with his lawyer. They reviewed his contract. Then, a light bulb went off. He suddenly realized that most of the crew worked for him. As such, he had the right to terminate their contracts. Gathering intelligence from staunch loyalists, he quickly identified which of the assistants were making him look bad to the studio. He guessed correctly that most of them were bucking for his job. He abruptly fired them, and handed their jobs over to other crew members much lower on the production totem pole.
That left Paramount with a problem. They couldn’t fire Coppola on such short notice. Because no one was left in a position to take over. Firing the Director would have meant shutting down the production for an extended period while a replacement was found and brought up to speed. In addition, the actors on the set were loyal to Coppola. If the director walked, many of them would do the same. Evans and the other Paramount execs began to look at the dailies and weigh their options. The footage they were getting looked great. So, they decided to let Coppola have a little more rope as long as they saw progress. He had survived, but just barely.
Slowly, the film began to come together. Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis continued to fight like cats and dogs, but somehow they brought out the best in one another. In some cases, it was the classic clash between experience and innovation. During the scene where Marlon Brando is shot in an assassination attempt, and the oranges spill out into the street, Coppola said he wanted to shoot it from way up high. Willis resisted, claiming, “That’s not possible. Which character’s point would that angle represent?” Coppola lost his temper and screamed back “Who cares!! It’s Orson Welles’ point of view!! Now get somebody on top of a ladder with a camera!!”
Maybe it was due to the tension and conflict, or perhaps it was because he was able to take advantage of the extra time given him by Coppola’s lack of organization, but Willis was able to achieve some astonishing lighting effects in the film. One we’ve already mentioned is the wedding sequence. But another comes during the final shots of the movie. In the scene where Kay (Diane Keaton) is pouring a drink in the foreground, you see Michael (Al Pacino) accepting his new role as Godfather in another room. It’s one shot, but everything is in sharp focus. In addition, the overall light level in both rooms is very dark, and full of warm tones. Any photographer out there will tell you that in order to pull something like that off, you need an extremely deep depth of field. To get that depth, you have to rely on an extremely large f-stop (or small aperture) in the camera. But to keep the film exposed properly, you also need to blast the set with an enormous amount of light. Given the film stocks of the time, we’re talking supernova here. To end up with a shot having that much depth of field, and still have it appear dimly lit requires an extraordinary amount of expertise, planning, and precision. It’s just one reason why “The Godfather” is as much a pleasure to watch as it is to listen to.
But Coppola was still beset with doubts. He later described one of his darkest moments during the production coming when he took a night off to go see a new film causing quite a stir at the time. It was called The French Connection. Like everyone else who saw it, he was thrilled with the action sequences….especially the car chase under the subway tracks in New York City. He later claimed that he walked out of the theater with a sense of despair. “Who would come to see my film?” he asked himself. “We don’t have any car chases. All we have is a bunch of men in dark rooms…talking.”
Coppola also continued to fight with Robert Evans. To this day, they tell totally different stories about the final cut of the film. Evans claimed that the original version was less than 90 minutes in length and that he wanted more stuff added. “Go back and bring me a movie!” he famously claimed to have said. Coppola strongly disputes this. He claims his original cut was much longer, and that Evans kept arguing with him to pare it down and make it more “commercial.”
Regardless, when “The Godfather” opened in 1972, audiences immediately recognized it as a new American classic. It broke box office records, and instantly became ingrained as part of our culture. You see references to it everywhere. From “The Sopranos” to “The Simpsons.”. In restaurants and bars people quote lines from the movie everyday. (“Leave the gun..bring the cannoli;” “Hold your friends close…your enemies closer;” “He sleeps with the fishes”). John Gotti even used to show it to his crew so they’d know how to act like real gangsters. And the music is instantly recognizable, no matter what context you hear it in.
When the Oscars were handed out that year, Marlon Brando won for best actor. But true to form, he didn’t show up at the ceremony. Instead, he sent Native American Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the award on his behalf. Dressed in full native garb, she used the occasion to protest to the slack-jawed audience about the U.S. Government’s treatment of American Indians. (We miss the old Oscar shows. Some years you never really knew what might happen). “The Godfather” also won Oscars that night for Best Picture and Screenplay.
There’s a famous story about Coppola cruising Sunset Boulevard in a limousine shortly after that year’s Academy Awards. While at a stop light, another limousine pulled up. Inside were William Friedkin, the director of “The French Connection”, and Peter Bogdanovich, who had helmed The Last Picture Show. Everyone was out partying, and had plenty of champagne to go around in their respective vehicles. Seeing Coppola, Bogdanovich stood up through the moon roof and shouted “The Last Picture Show….8 Academy Award Nominations!!!” Friedkin then took his turn standing up and yelled: “The French Connection…winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture!!” Coppola looked around and then stood up himself with bottle in hand. He then bellowed: “The Godfather….150 million dollars at the box office!!” It showed that Coppola understood what the New Hollywood was really going to be all about.
Naturally, Paramount was keen for a sequel. When they approached Coppola to do a follow-on, he was ready with several demands. In addition to complete creative control and an obscene amount of money (his words), he wanted Gordon Willis back as his cinematographer. But he also asked that it be put in the contract that Robert Evans would have nothing to do with the new picture. He got his wish on all four counts.
One last piece of Godfather trivia: In the baptism scene where Connie’s baby is being anointed, the baby is played by Sofia Coppola, Francis’s daughter. As you might already know, she later grew up to become a film director and Oscar winner herself for “Lost in Translation”. She also made “The Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette” and “The Beguiled.” Just like her father, she believes in a personalized style of film making.
Of course, as we mentioned, the early 1970s produced a slew of other great movies as well. We’d be remiss if we didn’t also pay homage to at least a few more of them. That’s next in Film History 101.